Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Izetbegovic To Call It A Day

Alija Izetbegovic who came to symbolise Sarajevo's defiance during the Bosnian war is to retire from the country's presidency later this year.
By Janez Kovac

In a weak and shaky voice, Bosnia's wartime leader, Alija Izetbegovic, announced in a television address on Tuesday night, June 6, that he would be stepping down from the presidency in October.


He cited his old age, bad health and 'unwarranted' international pressure as the main reasons for his departure from the three-man collective presidency, half way through its four-year mandate.


"Dear citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I wish to inform you of my decision to retire after the completion of my term as chairman of the presidency in October," said the veteran, 74-year-old politician.


The Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim members of the presidency, Zivko Radisic, Ante Jelavic and Izetbegovic, were elected in 1998 for four years. The post of chairman is rotated every eight months.


The news immediately triggered widespread public debate over the reasons for Izetbegovic's retirement and his possible successors.


It may also precipitate a political crisis as Bosnia still lacks legal mechanisms for the replacement of presidency members. A proposed electoral law drafted by the OSCE has been rejected by the Bosnian parliament.


The top international mediator in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch and the head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia, Robert Barry, are expected to look into the issue in the next few days.


Izetbegovic, nick-named 'dedo' (grandpa) - a reference to both his wrinkled appearance and paternalistic style of leadership - has steered the Bosnian Muslims through ten turbulent years. He came to symbolise Sarajevo's defiance during the Bosnian war.


A lawyer by profession, he was jailed for nine years in the seventies, along with a number of Muslim intellectuals, in a clamp down on emerging nationalist movements.


In 1990, Izetbegovic helped to found the Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA. Following independence in 1991, he was elected the country's first head of state and led the Muslim-dominated Bosnian presidency during the war. After the conflict, he was appointed Muslim member of the republic's tripartite presidency.


Although he appeared to disavow hardline nationalism, Izetbegovic was well-known for coming out with inflammatory statements which he would invariably have to retract. He readily admitted that he was prone to frequently changing his opinion.


A religious man, Izetbegovic has written a number of books about Islam, some of which led to his imprisonment in the 1970s. His Bosnian Croat and Serb opponents have often cited the books in support of their claims that he's a Muslim fundamentalist.


On the whole, Izetbegovic came across as a simple, honest man and a moderate nationalist whose biggest mistake was surrounding himself with criminals, corrupt politicians and opportunists.


Sources close to Izetbegovic claim that during and after the war, he lost touch with reality because this circle of people provided him incomplete and sometimes completely spurious information and analysis. Izetbegovic was never strong enough to remove them from his party and government.


As a result, some of Izetbegovic's closest friends and associates, including his son Bakir, are believed to have become deeply involved in corruption, smuggling and black-marketeering. Press revelations over these illicit activities are thought to have accounted for the SDA's poor results in recent municipal elections.


In the past few years, Izetbegovic has suffered two heart attacks. After the second in 1996, doctors are reported to have told him that he would not have long to live unless he stopped working.


Speaking after his decision to step down from the presidency, Izetbegovic, looking exceptionally pale and exhausted, said he would remain head of the SDA and work to revive the party's fortunes.


In his Tuesday night television address, Izetbegovic issued one of his strongest criticisms of the international community, asserting that the West had been "pushing things forward in Bosnia at the expense of the Muslim people. I feel it is an injustice."


Should his successor be elected by the Bosnian parliament, the two main candidates are likely to be the current federal premier and SDA vice-president, Edhem Bicakcic, and Haris Silajdzic, the wartime foreign minister and premier and one of the founders of SDA who, a couple of years back, left to form his own party.


On Tuesday night, Izetbegovic surprised everybody by publicly backing Silajdzic. It is unlikely, though, that he would get enough votes from SDA parliamentary representatives.


If elections decide Izetbegovic's successor, Silajdzic, Bicakcic and Zlatko Lagumdzija, the president of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, have equal chance of winning. Lagumdzija, however, might shade the others as his party triumphed in the municipal poll, taking Bosnia's three largest cities, Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla.


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor